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ďA Twenty-first Century (ox) TaleĒ
By Phyllis B. Grodsky
A New Twist on An Old Soup
It all began when Christine, who is Jamaican-American, told me she was planning to make oxtail soup. I casually mentioned that my mother, who kept a kosher home, also made the soup. ďBut oxtail isnít Kosher!Ē Christine responded, her voice rising as if to underscore the seriousness of her charge. Christine worked for many Jewish people and knew the hindquarters of an animal werenít kosher. Period. End of story.
So is oxtail kosher?
The controversy revolves around the sciatic nerve which runs up the tail of a cow (actual oxen arenít used anymore). A highly skilled shochet (ritual slaughterer) must totally remove the sciatic nerve and all its adjoining blood vessels -- a complex, labor intensive procedure -- for oxtail to be kosher. Some rabbis say the procedure is too intricate to be 100% reliable, and deem oxtail nonkosher.
But in the 1950ís, my mother bought oxtail at a kosher butcher in the Bronx. The boney joints werenít always in the shop -- the cow has only one tail. When it was available, my mother, who wasnít easy to please, would come home excited, and proudly announce: ďThe butcher had oxtail!Ē
As best I remember, she made soup with onions, celery, carrots, turnips, bay leaves and barley.
Christine made her soup with onions, tomatoes, garlic, allspice, a hot green pepper, white beans, and beef stock.
Whatís going on here? Two such different soups with the same name?
Online, I discovered a dish called oxtail soup -- slow cooking, and prized for its rich flavor -- was found all over the world (e.g. China, Eastern Europe, Mexico, Zimbabwe). Its components -- oxtail, spices, vegetables, and beans or a grain -- were universal. But wherever it was found, some of the soupís ingredients were indigenous to the locale.
My mother, who was from Poland, used barley, an integral part of Eastern European soups.
Christine made her soup with allspice, a berry grown in Jamaica.
It was more than a trip down memory lane, I was intrigued by the ubiquitous soup. I wondered: Could I make the soup with kosher oxtail? Could I stay true the soupís character, yet tweak it to suit my taste?
The challenge was to find kosher oxtail.
My son and daughter-in-law picked up the gauntlet and went to Borough Park, a neighborhood in Brooklyn with an abundance of kosher butchers. They were turned away by several, who told them -- in no uncertain terms -- oxtail wasnít kosher. But they persisted, and found a kosher butcher on the main shopping avenue who, unfazed by their request, went to the freezer and returned with oxtail.
Assembling the vegetables had its problems, too. I put turnips in the mix as a nod to my motherís soup. But the once popular vegetable isnít used much any more, so three local supermarkets had to be canvassed before it could be secured.
Finding an ingredient indigenous to my environs was the easy part. I live next door to a part of Manhattan -- sometimes called Curry Hill -- where kosher vegetarian Indian restaurants line the streets, and pungent aromas stream out of spice shops. The Indian spices I chose, while not homegrown, were certainly close to home.
Finally, to give the soup a more contemporary Jewish sensibility, I chose Israeli couscous -- pearl sized granules of semolina wheat -- for the grain. Of the dozens of recipes I found online, I didnít see any with Israeli couscous, so the soup may have had a personal touch, after all.
Hereís how it came together.
2 1/2 pounds oxtail joints, cut in 2 inch pieces, fat
- 1 teaspoon powdered garlic,
- 2 teaspoons
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin,
teaspoon powdered ginger,
- 1/2 teaspoon ground
- 1/4 teaspoon powdered cloves, and
- 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes, mixed in a bowl
- 1 medium onion,
- 1 carrot,
- 1 medium
green bell pepper, and
- 2 small white turnips,
- 1 14
ounce can diced tomatoes (with juice)
- 1/2 cup Israeli couscous
I approached the soup bowl with trepidation. Would I take a spoonful and think: ďIs that all there is?Ē But no. I found the soup hardy and satisfying; the meat was juicy and fall-off-the-bone tender; the Israeli couscous was melt-in-your-mouth creamy.
- The oxtail joints were washed and put in a heavy
pot. Diced tomatoes (with juice), 4 cups of water,
and the spice mix were added, stirred, and
brought to a boil. The heat was reduced, and the
ingredients simmered for 2 hours. More water was
- The fat was skimmed, the vegetables added, and
the ingredients simmered for an additional 1 1/2
- The soup was cooled and refrigerated overnight.
- The next day, more fat was skimmed, Israeli
couscous added, and the ingredients reheated.
But the turnips stole the show: drops of soup slipped between the the vegetableís smooth layers and added an unexpected burst of spiciness to its silky texture.
I included turnips as a gesture, but the vegetable ultimately became an homage to my motherís soup.
Today, oxtail soup is made by home cooks from the Caribbean, itís not usual fare on the American table. The soup requires time and patience to prepare, and oxtail, kosher, or not, isnít readily available. Still, it takes only one taste to understand why oxtail soup is enjoyed by folks all over the world.
Other foods thought to be nonkosher may also be kosher. An article in the Forward (July 28, 2010), reported fried locusts were served at a $100 a plate kosher dinner in Jerusalem. While oxtail may have landed in my soup bowl, Iíll have to think long and hard before locusts -- fried, or otherwise -- jump onto my dinner plate.
Phyllis B. Grodsky, Ph.D. is a retired social psychologist who has previously published in The Jewish Magazine (see for example,
"Charlotte Russe: The Pastry that went from the Tables of Royalty to the Streets of New York."
from the May 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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